Huizinga’s Three Motifs of Death.

“The endless complaint of the frailty of all earthly glory was sung to various melodies. Three motifs may be distinguished. The first is expressed by the question: Where are all those who one filled the world with their splendour? The second motif dwells on the frightful spectacle of human beauty gone to decay. The third is the death-dance: death dragging along men of all conditions and ages.”[1]

Huizinga provides a helpful scheme comprising three main elements of the death motif. Of the three, the dance of death may be most familiar to informed and uninformed alike.


[1] Johann Huizinga, “Art and Life” in The Waning of the Middle Ages, 245.

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Vile Bodies: From Totentanze to Death and the Maiden.

ImageThe motif of Death kissing a beautiful young woman developed from the Danse Macabre which contains an episode of Death confronting a noblewoman.  Though the seeds of the idea go back to classical mythology, the motif is mainly found in Germany, particularly in visual art and music. In painting, the theme is most associated with Dürer’s pupil, Hans Baldung Grien.  Adopting such morbid images by Dürer such as the Knight, Devil and Death, Baldung introduced an erotic note by having Death seize the maiden’s clothes through its teeth in his Knight, Young Girl and Death of 1505. A similar emphasis on biting the young woman appears in later paintings of Death and the Maiden which dispense with the Knight. In his analysis of the death motif in Baldung’s pictures, Joseph Koerner sees the “lipless kiss” of the corpse as putrefaction.[1] An obsession with the corruption of bodily flesh can be detected in the art of this period. The need to free oneself from matter underlines iconography of the period: the assumption of the Virgin who is intact, and whose flesh cannot deteriorate; the incorrupt bodies of saints; the misery of Lazarus raised from the dead and fearful that he would have to go through the gate of death again. As Huizinga notes, much of this fear of decomposition, anxiety about the body turning vile, must be understood in terms of the macabre.


[1] Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture, 293.

Death Walks Behind You: The Danse Macabre.

“Since the thirteenth-century, the popular preaching of the mendicant orders had made the eternal admonition to remember death swell into a sombre chorus ringing throughout the world. Towards the fifteenth-century, a new means of inculcating the awful thought into all minds was added to the words of the preacher, namely the popular woodcut. Now these two means of expression, sermons and woodcuts, both addressing themselves to the multitude and limited to crude effects, could only represent death in a simple and striking form. All that the meditations on death of the monks of yore had produced, was now condensed into a very primitive image. This vivid image, continually impressed on all minds, had hardly assimilated more than a single element of the great complex of ideas relating to death, namely, the sense of the perishable nature of all things. It would seem, at times, as if the soul of the declining Middle Ages only succeeded in seeing death under this aspect.”[1]

The image of the Danse Macabre is mainly recognizable through the woodcuts of the Parisian printer Guyot Marchant, who first published it in 1485; but as Huizinga reminds us, some years earlier, in 1424, the image covered the walls of the cloister of the churchyard of the Innocents in Paris, closed in 1780 due to overcrowding. It is likely that Guyot’s woodcuts are based on these lost paintings, whose impact, as Huizinga said, might be gauged by looking at the frescoes of the Danse in the Abbey La Chaise-Dieuen Haute-Loire, whose unfinished state makes the paintings seem spectral and unsettling. It is also instructive to look at reproductions of Bernt Notke’s 30 ft Danse, sadly destroyed in 1942 in an allied bombing attack on Lübeck. Huizinga’s original interpretation is that in early incarnations of the Danse Macabre the dancer was not Death, but a double of the living man who had this fate in prospect. “It is yourself” says the horrifying vision to the spectators in the Danse and the convention known as “three men and death.” Despite its departure from the Danse Macabre’s original intentions, it is Holbein the Younger’s handling of the theme from the early sixteenth-century that has attracted the most attention. The origin of Holbein’s series of prints is complicated; their genesis is traced in Bätschmann’s and Griener’s recommended book on the painter. As pointed out by these authors, Holbein’s publication of the “Dance of Death” in 1536 was accompanied by the appearance of his illustrations to the Old Testament.[2] Possibly, the idea suggested here was that with the Creation and Fall, death entered into the world; and as Joseph Koerner points out, the idea of death having its historical origin in Adam’s sin runs right through the genre of the macabre.[3] Never slow to seize an opportunity, the Church appropriated the fear of death, persuading the gullible and frightened that these unforgettable renditions of the grim reaper were exhortations to lead a righteous life. For example, in Holbein’s Todesalphabet or Alphabet with Dance of Death, there is a passage from Proverbs which considers the right path for the individual to take. The answer to this riddle, underlined by the A-Z (Death’s concert to the Last Judgment) is that the word of God remains for eternity whilist everything else passes into dust. This representation of death through the medium of the woodcut “makes visible the invisible abstraction of death, which appears in every social situation- from driving the humble plough to casting down the pope from his high estate. It is this “irruption of Death into everyday life” that makes Holbein’s treatment of the theme so distinctive from the traditional presentation of the Danse Macabre, a motif that Huizinga excavated in his Waning of the Middle Ages.[4]


[1] Johann Huizinga, “The Vision of Death” in The Waning of the Middle Ages, 134.

[2] Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener Hans Holbein, (Reaktion Books, 1997), 56.

[3] Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, (Chicago University Press), 290. Text available on-line here. 

[4] Bätschmann and Griener Hans Holbein , 58.

The Tragic Splendour of Death and the Heroism of the Sculptor

“This serfdom of a great art controlled by the will of a princely patron is tragic, but is it at the same time exalted by the heroic efforts of the great sculptor to shake off his shackles.”[1]

ImageOne of the most prevalent images of death in this period is that of the reclining figure on a tomb Such silent, motionless figures work in a paradoxical way on the spectator; on the one hand, the physical nature of the stone suggests permanence; on the other, the aura of the absent person conveys its opposite, impermanence. Tombs like those of the Dukes of Burgundy created by Claus Sluter and his helpers adapted traditional motifs like the “gisants,” the stone effigies of the dead; also, the inclusion of “pleurants,” mourners, in one instance wonderfully described by Huizinga as “a funeral march in stone.” In creating his “funeral march” for Philip the Bold the Duke of Burgundy,  Claus Sluter must have attempted to connect with the living world because his sculpture is clearly based on funeral corteges that he observed. Figures interact, some animatedly, as if indulging in conversation. Rather than articulating the idea of the pleurants marching with Philip the Bold into the hereafter, the impression conveyed is of mourners congregating at the church door before making their farewells and returning to their daily round. Hence Sluter has the best of both worlds- life and death, stillness and movement- in his monument to the dead duke. It’s almost as if Sluter is fighting to escape from this “tragic” prison of patronage- represented by the conventional gisant on top, and the horribly garishly painted angels- in a heroic bid to assert his individuality as a sculptor. Had Sluter had the willpower of a Michelangelo, he might have produced more notable examples of his artistic liberation. As it stands, for one glorious moment Sluter broke free of the chains of patronage- and burst forth with a motif that not only attests to his genius as a sculptor, but also serves to memorialize the sculptor himself through his art.    


[1] Johann Huizinga, “Art and Life” in The Waning of the Middle Ages, 245.

The Middle Ages and the Fear of Sudden Death.

Death is a constant in life and art, and the late- medieval period is no exception. But what made the representation of death so different in this age? How might we approach the theme in relation to the art taught on this course?  In these times people lived in constant fear of not only death, but sudden death. As the historian G.G. Coulton observes, sudden death was a very serious matter in these times, since it meant “death without the last absolving rites of the Church; and theologians seriously discussed whether the man who died thus had a right of burial in holy ground.”[1] Usually the Church erred on the merciful side, but if somebody died suddenly in a tournament for example, he was “deprived of all Church Offices.” One way of guarding against sudden death, though Coulton concedes it may have been a late invention, was that the sight of a saint’s image kept the individual from harm. A good example of this is St Christopher, the Christ-Bearer, who as a wayfarer would convey the idea of a journey of both a geographical and spiritual nature. “Look at Christopher, and afterwards go safe upon your way.” The fear of death inevitably became an instrument of the Church who adapted it for their moralizing theology. Paintings such as Bosch’s Death and the Miser under theological influence deal with the theme of sin and repentance- or the lack of it- at the point of death.


[1] G.G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 1953), 306.

List of Slides for Week 4.

1)      Pieter Bruegel the Elder,The Triumph of Death, c. 1562, Oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

2)      Unidentified French Miniaturist, Judgment of the Dead, c. 1418, Vellum, 25,4 x 17.8 cm, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

3)      Hans Memling, Last Judgment Triptych (open), 1467-71, Oil on wood, 221 x 161 cm (central), 223,5 x 72,5 cm (each wing), Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.

4)      Konrad Witz, St Christopher, Saint Christopher, c. 1435, Panel, 101 x 81 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

5)      Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, c. 1490, Oil on wood, 93 x 31 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

6)      Unknown Netherlandish Artist, Ars Moriendi, (The Art of Dying), woodblock, about 1460.

7)      Hieronymus Bosch, study for Death and the Miser, Washington, Drawing, 256 x 149 mm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

8)      Guyot Marchand, Danse Macabre, 1485, woodcuts.

9)      Unknown artist, Church of the Holy Innocents, Paris, est 12th cent; closed 1780, 1550, watercolour, dimensions and location unknown.

10)   Unknown artist, Charnel House, Charnel house with mural of the Danse Macabre.

11)   Unknown Artist, The Dance of Death, stage 1, probably 1460, fresco, Abbey of La Chaise-Dieuen Haute-Loire.

12)   Unknown Artist, The Dance of Death, stage 3, probably 1460s, fresco, Abbey of La Chaise-Dieuen Haute-Loire.

13)   Bernt Notke, Fragment of the Danse Macabre, around 1463, fresco, originally 30 metres, Church of Saint-Nicolas, Tallinn, Estonia.

14)   Bernt Notke, Original Danse Macabre before Allied Bombing of Lübeck in 1942.

15)   Hans Holbein the Younger, The Plowman from Dance of Death, 1524-26, Woodcut, 65 x 48 mm, Kupferstichkabinett, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

16)   Hans Holbein the Younger, The Rich Man; The Queen, 1523-26, Woodcut, 64 x 48 mm, National Gallery of Art, Washington

17)   Hans Holbein the Younger The Noble Lady from Dance of Death, 1524-26,  Woodcut, 65 x 48 mm, Kupferstichkabinett, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

18)   Hans Holbein the Younger, Todesalphabet or Alphabet with Dance of Death, c. 1524, single leaf woodcut with type printing, 27 x 34, Kunstsammlung der Veste, Coburg.

19)   Hans Baldung Grien, Adam and Eve, 1531, Oil on panel, 148 x 67 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

20)   Hans Baldung Grien, The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death, c. 1505, Oil on wood, 355 x 296 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

21)   Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, Engraving, 245 x 188 mm, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.

22)   Hans Baldung Grien, Death and the Maiden, 1518-20, Oil on panel, 31 x 19 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

23)   Hans Baldung Grien, Death and the Maiden, 1517, Oil on panel, 30 x 15 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

24)   Albert van Ouwater, The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1455, Oil on wood, 122 x 92 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

25)   Claus Sluter, Stone, Charterhouse of Champmol, Dijon, 1389-1406, Memorial to Philip the Bold, Philip the Bold introduced to the Virgin.

26)   After Jean Malouel, Philip the Bold, 1500s, Panel painting, Musée National, Versailles.

27)   Claus Sluter, Memorial to Philip the Bold Margaret of Flanders, the wife of Philip the Bold.

28)   Claus Sluter, Tomb of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, 1390-1406, Alabaster, height 243 cm, Musée Archéologique, Dijon.

29)   Claus Sluter, Tomb of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, 1390-1406, Alabaster, height 243 cm, Musée Archéologique, Dijon, different view.

Link for images.